on the history of emotional suppression, the confusion around negative emotions, and how to claim our emotional property
“Humans are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional.”Martha Nussbaum
The other day a friend called me in a state of emergency. Something had happened, and it had triggered an overwhelming tidal wave of emotional reactions.
A few questions revealed that there was no acute threat. Nothing ‘real’ was putting her or her family in danger. An intense surge of emotions had been activated inside her, and it was having a real impact on her experience of life.
In the world of my grandparents such an event would have been dismissed as hysteria. Or they might have called it ‘mental instability’. Emotional sensitivity was an unfortunate disposition, which afflicted mainly women.
Emotions were still perceived with great suspicion by my parents and most of their contemporaries. In my childhood emotional sensitivity was regarded as a weakness. Negative emotions had to be controlled. ‘Emotional intelligence’ had just been discovered, but hardly anybody knew about it.
About 400 years ago, around the time when René Descartes spoke the famous words “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), influential thinkers decided that the Intellect was the most important function of human Consciousness.
The Instinct, which is responsible for our emotions, was declared outdated. Emotions were believed to be expressions of our animal nature, and humans were supposed to learn to overcome their ‘lower inner beast’.
In the mid 20th century, around the time when the Intelligence Quotient was introduced, several psychologists began to recognise the value of emotional intelligence.
The term was later popularised by Daniel Goleman, who wrote a book with the title Emotional Intelligence. The book was first published in 1995 and became a bestseller.
Another factor influencing our relationship with our emotions is a certain kind of popular spirituality. Some people call it the ‘cult of optimism’. It seems to promote positive thinking at all cost.
Even the Dalai Lama wrote somewhere that ‘happiness is our life’s purpose’. And several eminent spiritual teachers, including the scientist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, focus their work on teaching happiness.
This can be confusing, because normal people like you and me might think they are ‘not spiritual enough’ – or we are not on track with our life’s purpose – if we feel unhappy now and again.
In its popular form, emotional intelligence got reduced to positive emotions and showing empathy with others. But that’s not what Daniel Goleman and his colleagues were talking about.
“Socrates’s injunction ‘Know thyself’ speaks to the keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”Daniel Goleman
In the information age of the 21st century our intellectual property is very precious to us. We have created a whole legal system to protect our ideas with patents, trademarks, and copyrights.
At the same time, we are neglecting and rejecting our emotional property. New methods are being invented all the time to reduce or eliminate our negative emotions. Providers of online courses offer programs to help us ‘get rid of emotional clutter’.
These are the ripple effects of the Age of Enlightenment. They are very palpable, and they seem as reasonable to us today as the more overt emotional repression was for our ancestors.
After a brief moment in the limelight – recognising our potential for emotional intelligence – our emotional property quickly got buried again under rational explanations, and the monopoly of the Intellect reestablished itself.
The reasons are understandable. The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum recognised them when she wrote, “We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear…”
In her book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions Martha Nussbaum explains:
“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself…. Emotions should be understood as ‘geological upheavals of thought’: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control.”
In other words, our emotional property is still largely unknown to us, it is difficult or impossible to control, it can be very messy, and it tends to interfere with the world we know.
This is disturbing and scary. But, as Martha Nussbaum says, it is very important for our own flourishing.
“There is a possibility for change because all emotions are fleeting.”Matthieu Ricard
Of course, we all want to be happy!
The question is, how can we create this desirable experience? And how can we make it last?
Avoiding our negative feelings seems logical but it cannot be the answer. We have plenty of evidence that it doesn’t work. One of the reasons might be that the logic of the Intellect doesn’t apply to the Instinct.
Our emotions have their own kind of logic and intelligence, and these are based on universal principles of life (rather than on the limited reasoning of the human Intellect).
Through the lens of the Intellect, our emotions can look either good or bad, positive or negative, black or white. From the perspective of the Instinct our emotions can feel light or heavy, warm or frosty, bright or dark, fluid or rigid…
Our emotions can also change from one quality to another very easily. High divorce rates for example show that strong positive emotional attraction can become equally strong negative emotional aversion.
This means, there is no fixed boundary between our bad emotions and the good ones. They feel so different, yet they can turn into each other.
This is very confusing for the Intellect – but only as long as it doesn’t understand the natural laws which drive the emotional Instinct.
Some analogies might help to illustrate how this works:
From photography we know that negative images captured on a film can be developed into positive prints. If a sculptor wants to cast a sculpture, she has to make a negative form first.
This basic relationship between a negative temporary form and a positive finished form applies to our emotional property as well. Negative emotional experiences often precede the positive stage.
All negative emotions can be regarded as young or undeveloped parts of our emotional property.
Lasting happiness can be experienced only after moving through the stages of our personal emotional suffering.
This doesn’t mean anyone should deliberately inflict suffering or seek out painful experiences. Definitely not!
It does mean, however, that we have to accept the emotional pain, which already lives within us.
Our emotional property is part of us. We are born with a certain emotional potential and disposition, and we are fluent in the language of the Instinct from birth. One of our life-tasks as humans is to develop our emotional experience into a mature, constructive, positive form.
We are afraid to give positive attention to our negative immature emotions, in case they get worse.
This fear is based on outdated thought structures of our Intellect.
“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.”Audre Lorde
The infantile, undeveloped parts of your emotional property can only grow into maturity, if you give them your unconditional love, if you welcome them into your life, and if you embrace them as part of who your are.
They will never ‘go away’, no matter how long we avoid them. Negative emotions continue to hassle us until we pay attention.
We can shove them into the dark side of our inner world and pretend they don’t exist, because they are ‘only feelings’. But their activities continue in the wilderness. If left to their own devices, they become wild and subversive emotional beasts.
They turn into ‘emotional free radicals’. They can make us physically ill, provoke accidents and mess up our life – they’ll do anything to get the attention they need.
Negative emotions ‘go away’ as soon as you start to listen.
Where do they go?
Your loving attention gives them the opportunity to develop into mature positive emotions.
Happiness grows out of unhappiness. Compassion grows out of suffering. Emotional freedom grows out of claiming your emotional property.
If you think about it for a moment, this has very interesting implications. It means, every time you help one of your immature negative emotions grow into maturity, you not only resolve an uncomfortable experience forever, but you also increase your capacity for lasting happiness and emotional freedom.
In other words, more emotional property becomes available for the good experience you want, in direct proportion to the positive attention we give to our own negative emotions.
For 400 years we have tried to reach emotional freedom and wellbeing via routes planned out by the Intellect, and we are as far away from our goal as ever. Isn’t it time to try a radically different strategy?
A direct route to happiness leads through the emotional experience itself. Let your Instinct be your guide, and support it with the understanding of the Intellect about the natural phases of growth.
You’ll be able to nurture the emotional infants that live inside your inner world. They are waiting for you to give them a chance to grow up.
You’ll watch them develop into mature emotional creatures. They are desperate to make valuable and constructive contributions to your life.
With this strategy you’ll never need to be scared of your negative emotions again. You’ll never feel overwhelmed by them again. You’ll appreciate their presence, because you’ll recognise them as part of your unique potential – not just instinctively.
Your Intellect will understand it too, because “our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge,” as the American poet Audre Lorde said.
© Veronika Bond, 2016
This article is complemented by an e-letter published on the same date.
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